Friday Slide: Is Infinity Blade Unethical?

In a recent blog post on Gamasutra, Adam Saltsman, the creator of Canabalt and Gravity Hook HD, said that many iOS developers are churning out unethical games. He says these games manipulate players into spending more money, or into continuing to play after a weak gameplay mechanic has run its course. What games is he talking about? Infinity Blade and Jetpack Joyride, for starters.

To Saltsman, games like these illustrate two major problems in modern iOS games. The first problem is “the checklist effect,” which he explains as ‘that subtle and slight psychological effect that seeing a big checklist of in-game items or abilities has on players. It is usually a subtle push, a barely detectable need to ‘˜accomplish’ everything on the list.’ Jetpack Joyride fits this bill. The checklist effect, he argues, is an insidious way to keep people playing a shallow game they’d otherwise grow bored with quickly.

The second complaint has to do with in-app purchases. He sees it as problematic when you can pay real-life money to accelerate your character’s progression or abilities in a game. This intrusion of real money into the ‘perfect, impossible, and imaginary’ world of games, he says, violates the ‘sacred circle of play.’

Saltsman adds that games that are guilty of both the checklist effect and the misuse of in-app purchase– and here is where he cites Infinity Blade– are ‘a maelstrom of suck.’ To design a game that hooks you in using the checklist effect, then becomes an unpleasant grindfest, and then offers you a way to skip the grind by paying real-life money, he says, is extortion. ‘This is extortion in the worst way; this is extortion of the time we have left until we die, the sole resource of consequence for human life. Developers who deliberately engage in this kind of design should be ashamed of their creations.’

I have to admit, he had me until ‘extortion.’

Let’s be clear here: Extortion is a crime. It means stealing money under threat of violence or blackmail. So by definition, game design can never literally extort anyone. Rather, I think Saltsman is implying that these games are purposely designed to manipulate players into opening their wallets again and again to give the developer more money than they’re due. For some games, I think that’s true. I don’t play those games, and neither do most people who are careful about how they spend their time and money. But ultimately, my problem with this argument is that there’s no coercion going on– no one’s being forced to do anything.

Nor do I think Infinity Blade and Jetpack Joyride fall into this category. Yes, both games are designed to be repetitive and to reward you incrementally, either by giving you achievements or better gear. But you’re hardly forced to spend more money or to keep playing after you stop having fun. The only people I know who keep playing games they don’t like are the critics assigned to review those games.

Personally, I’ve never paid to advance my character in a game, because playing a game through to the end is why I play games in the first place. When I get to a point in a game where continuing on feels like more of a slog than it’s worth, I stop playing that game. And that’s a choice every gamer can make every time they play a game.

Games are meant to be fun. Some people prefer shallow, simple, casual games, and some people like paying a few extra bucks to get a killer new sword. And if you enjoy spending hours crossing items off a checklist or gobbling up achievements in a repetitive game, then that works for you. I certainly won’t tell you you’re having fun in the wrong way.

What do you think? Does Infinity Blade manipulate you to keep playing after you’ve grown tired of the combat? Are the endless achievements in Jetpack Joyride the only reason you keep playing? Should these developers be ashamed of themselves? Let us know in the comments section below.

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